Chairman of the Board

Folks don't know much about school board chairman Solomon Stinson, but they do know this: Don't cross him

Despite the snazzy outfits, boutonnieres, and corsages, everyone knew this vote would be no mere formality. The November 17, 1998, swearing-in ceremony for Miami-Dade County School Board members had proceeded amicably enough, with incumbents Solomon C. Stinson, Manty Sabates Morse, and Perla Tabares Hantman, and newcomers Robert Ingram and Marta Perez, affirming oaths to fulfill their duties.

The real fun began when the board's nine members convened to decide who would be their chairman for the next year.

Demetrio Perez nominated Solomon Stinson, who had served in the post for two years. Stinson, a 60-year-old Alabama native, had turned the once largely ceremonial chairmanship into perhaps the second-most powerful position in Miami-Dade (after the mayor). He had become "a little more equal" than his colleagues, in the words of political consultant Phil Hamersmith.

Two challengers arose. Board member Dr. Michael M. Krop nominated Morse, and Perla Tabares Hantman proposed Betsy Kaplan. Morse, like Stinson, had been elected to a two-year term in 1996 and re-elected in 1998 without opposition. Kaplan had been a board member since 1988.

Seated on the far right of the dais, Superintendent of Schools Roger C. Cuevas called the roll. The sequence of votes would be forever etched in the memory of those in the jam-packed auditorium that day.

Braddock: "Morse."
Ingram: "Dr. Stinson."
Morse: "Morse."
Marta Perez: "Mrs. Morse."
Stinson: "Stinson."
Demetrio Perez: "Stinson."
Kaplan: "Kaplan."
Krop: "Morse."
Hantman: "Kaplan."

That meant four votes for Morse, three for Stinson, two for Kaplan. "Having no majority, we will call the roll again, beginning with Mrs. Hantman," Cuevas stated. The board members repeated their votes in reverse, as the roll was called from the left of the dais to the right. And so it went for more than 100 rounds. Thirty minutes, an hour, ninety minutes, two hours passed. The monotony was broken only by a couple of failed motions to reopen nominations and two short recesses.

The recesses were a welter of conversation, speculation, wheeling, and dealing. Board members retreated to the conference room behind the dais and the hallway outside the auditorium, walked out into the auditorium, conversed in twos and threes on the dais itself. A noticeably frazzled Hantman popped Advil throughout the proceedings.

Aides negotiated with each other and with board members. One lanky young fellow leaned over to Morse among a knot of bemused spectators and declared, "Demetrio wants assurances that ..." and then stopped short, apparently unsure of who might be within earshot.

There's a law against this kind of stuff in Florida; it's called government-in-the-sunshine. Elected officials are prohibited from discussing the public's business in private, yet that's clearly what happened.

Two hours and 102 ballots later, both the corsages and audience were beginning to wilt. As the board members and the bored audience returned to their seats after the two rounds of slam dancing with the sunshine law, Krop changed his mind.

The next time around he voted for Stinson.
The wiry chairman's deeply lined countenance, usually impassive during meetings, lit up in a reasonable facsimile of surprise. Hantman followed Krop's lead, giving the chairman the necessary five votes. The result: Stinson would remain chairman for another year. (In the denouement Krop was elected vice chair without opposition.)

A relieved wave of applause, with an undercurrent of murmuring, filled the auditorium. He'd done it again. Stinson looked vulnerable coming into the meeting, but he pulled it off, successfully bucking the tradition of rotating the chairmanship among members every two years.

Yet, as with so many of Stinson's other accomplishments, this election is rife with controversy. Since the November meeting, at least five board members have given sworn statements to Joe Centorino, head of the Public Corruption Unit of the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office. The topic: possible sunshine-law violations during the meeting.

Accusations and rumors have swirled around Stinson throughout his 39-year career as a school official and resoundingly successful politician. It is perhaps this controversy that has made him press-shy and occasionally secretive. Stinson declined repeated requests over a month to be interviewed for this story and did not reply to questions faxed to his office. When a reporter approached him in the auditorium lobby at a recent board meeting, Stinson smiled and said, "I've been very busy, and haven't had time for that."

Of about 50 other people interviewed by New Times, some spoke highly of Stinson, his no-nonsense style, his experience, his intelligence, and his cutting sense of humor. But the majority, including nearly three dozen current and former district employees, derided him as a bully to whom the competency of his underlings is less important than their unwavering loyalty. Nearly all of Stinson's detractors employed by the school system declined to give their names, noting that openly criticizing the chairman is tantamount to career suicide.

Although many questions remain unanswered, Stinson's record provides clues about the man and his abilities. He has seen his superiors and subordinates investigated and even arrested over the years. Yet he has sailed through virtually unscathed, amassing unprecedented power over the school district's $3.5 billion budget. For his campaigns Stinson has twice raised record totals of more than $200,000. His contribution list includes both large amounts from school district contractors and small ones from school employees. And his personal wealth has grown by 60 percent during the past two years.

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